With the sports world grinding to a halt and the MLB season in an unprecedented state of uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, theScore's baseball team has decided to assemble a reading list for all the stir-crazy fans out there.
Baseball has been written about exhaustively, perhaps more than any other sport. If we've left off one of your favorites, feel free to make a case for it in the comments.
Here are five essential reads set in and around the world of baseball:
"Ball Four" by Jim Bouton, 1970
At its core, "Ball Four" is a diary about one of the oddest teams in MLB history. With help from journalist Leonard Shecter, former All-Star pitcher Jim Bouton chronicles the Seattle Pilots' 1969 season. The Pilots were a mediocre expansion team that featured the typical crew of cast-offs playing in a dilapidated former minor-league ballpark. The team was sold and relocated to Milwaukee to become the Brewers mere days before the 1970 season.
That story would make for a wonderful baseball book on its own, but Bouton took "Ball Four" to another level by stripping baseball of its innocence. He dished on everything from the realities of clubhouse life to the rampant use of amphetamines to his friend and former New York Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle's alcoholism.
Bouton was essentially ostracized after the book's release. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to force the pitcher to admit it was all a lie, the Yankees refused to invite him to alumni events for decades, and Mantle stopped speaking to him. Even sportswriters turned on the pitcher. Yet "Ball Four" has lived on, and it's now regarded not only as a seminal baseball book, but as perhaps the most important sports book ever written. It was the only sports-related work to crack The New York Public Library's Books of the Century list in 1996.
"Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" by Michael Lewis, 2003
"Moneyball" is more than a baseball book - because sabermetrics is more than a baseball principle. The most simplistic explanation of the term "sabermetrics" is that it involves complex statistical measures. Though that's partly true, the concept is more about finding value where others choose not to look, an ethos that transcends baseball and even sports entirely.
While many folks in and around baseball were already experimenting with sabermetrics by the time his book came out, Lewis was the first person to play that tune for the masses and explore its implementation by a major-league team using real-life examples. Lewis' telling has aged quite well, and if you don't think it shaped the game, just ask San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who got his start in Oakland's front office by sending a letter to Billy Beane shortly after reading "Moneyball."
"Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big" by Jose Canseco, 2005
Before Mike Fiers blew the whistle on the Houston Astros' illegal sign-stealing scheme, Canseco generated headlines - and threw his fellow athletes under the bus in the process - with his autobiographical account of steroid usage in baseball.
"Juiced" offers a deep dive into the life of a big-league player. Though Canseco deals primarily with the use of anabolic steroids in professional baseball, the 1988 American League MVP also touches on several other interesting topics, including his relationship with Madonna and frequent run-ins with the law.
In describing baseball's rampant steroid use, Canseco not only claims to have introduced the performance enhancer to his sport, but goes so far as to name other players - including Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Ivan Rodriguez, and his own Oakland Athletics bash brother Mark McGwire - as users.
Canseco's work led to the investigations of several players, including McGwire, who admitted in 2010 that he'd used steroids sporadically for a decade, tainting his legacy and the single-season home run record he set in 1998.
"Juiced" helped forever change the public perception of professional baseball players.
"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach, 2011
Baseball is about confronting your failures; even the best players fail to reach base six out of 10 times. But when Henry Skrimshander, a slick-fielding college shortstop and surefire future big-leaguer, records the first error of his young career - and injures his best friend in the process - he's unable to keep it all together.
Through Skrimshander's failure and baseball as a whole, "The Art of Fielding" explores how humans manage the relationships they cherish and the fact that even the strongest connections can fade. In his debut and only novel to date, Harbach resolves the story's issues in a way that should be familiar to everyone, baseball fanatic or not.
"The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn, 1972
Kahn took a novelistic approach to the retelling of his youth, his relationship with his father, and his time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers as a young beat writer in the early 1950s. "The Boys of Summer" offers a glimpse into life on the road with the ballplayers of his day, from Jackie Robinson to Roy Campanella to Pee Wee Reese and others.
Even more resonant than its initial wave of nostalgia and history is the book's second half, in which Kahn tracks down a selection of retired players and outlines a mixture of triumph and tragedy in the face of aging. Campanella's story, in particular, is one of perpetual sadness after a 1958 automobile accident confined him to a wheelchair.
Kahn is laudatory and sometimes saccharine in his descriptions of the game - it's hard not to be romantic about baseball, after all. But it's the encounters with retired players that provide a complete and compelling story covering the many facets of the life of a professional athlete.
Kahn died in February at the age of 92, but this incredible mix of memoir and journalism has made him immortal.